We are globally doomed, Jonathan Franzen's new novel insists. We fight endless wars, usually for profit. We're greedy and selfish. We lie and cheat and care little for human suffering. We put tremendous strain on the planet, reproducing without thought, destroying habitats and extinguishing other species at an astonishing rate. And those transgressions are nothing compared to what we do to the people we are supposed to love.
Franzen's first novel since The Corrections in 2001, Freedom is even more gloomy than that astounding epic of family dysfunction and postmodern malaise. Like its predecessor -- a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist -- Freedom is full of regret, pain, infidelity, tragedy, stupidity, disastrous ego and careless manipulation. It's political and personal, surprisingly funny at times and devastatingly insightful, a grand examination of what's gone badly wrong on every level of contemporary life, from music (``I think the iPod is the true face of Republican politics,'' a character asserts) to mountaintop-removal mining. That Franzen, so adept at painting a vivid if not particularly flattering portrait of modern Americans, manages to sound even the faintest note of hope by the end is miraculous. But then, so is this book.
Freedom -- a more painfully ironic title never existed -- focuses on Patty and Walter Berglund, college sweethearts with two kids and a reputation around their gentrified St. Paul neighborhood as ``the super-guilty sort of liberals who needed to forgive everybody so their own good fortune could be forgiven; who lacked the courage of their privilege.'' Scrutiny reveals they aren't really all that privileged. Bright Walter is the son of a drunk and a mother worn to the bone by caring for the old man; Walter's brothers are cads, so he had to keep the household running even after he left for college. Former basketball star Patty (``Success at sports is the province of the almost empty head,'' she will write years later in her journal) doesn't even speak to her family once she wiggles free of their influential but neglectful sphere.
Still, as adults, the Berglunds are liked in the neighborhood until a dizzying fall from grace. Freedom begins with an overview of the Berglunds' descent, a succinct and compelling opening chapter detailing their reign on Ramsey Hill and eventual collapse. Then the story doubles back in time for a more intimate exploration of Patty and Walter and their relationship, defined by his insistence that she is ``a genuinely nice person.'' Patty's error, ``the really big life mistake, was to go along with Walter's version of her in spite of knowing that it wasn't right.''
Patty makes other really big life mistakes, too, among them preferring her difficult son Joey over her obedient daughter Jessica. Joey will become a terrible disappointment, choosing an unacceptable, possibly psychotic girlfriend far too early and an entirely different set of values from those of his parents. Freedom is nothing if not an indictment of the Bush years, but it does not let NPR-loving liberals off easily, either: the hideous compromises that ``greener than Greenpeace'' Walter makes to preserve a bird sanctuary are as ugly as the war profiteering to which Joey will eventually be drawn. Whatever side you're on, Franzen seems to tell us, you can still screw things up.
Nothing, however, is quite so devastating to the Berglunds' marriage and mental health as the influence of Walter's best buddy Richard, his college roommate, a musician careless with women and sex and, as it turns out, his closest friends. And yet Franzen never demonizes him. He only lets Richard remind us of how terribly fragile human bonds can be.
What links these troubled characters is their inability to reconcile this notion of freedom that we're all meant to enjoy. We're free to choose our destinies here in the U.S.A., and they have money, influence. They're ahead of the game. Why aren't they happy? Without a job and her kids grown, Patty grows depressed -- her neighbors might say she's unhinged -- sensing a ``more general freedom that she could see was killing her but she was nonetheless unable to let go of.'' She sees ``what it meant to have become a deeply unhappy person.''
Walter has the means to pursue his dream of rescuing the tiny, endangered cerulean warbler but can't save Patty from her self-hatred. After finally fleeing his parents' protective umbrella, even hard-headed Joey learns some tough lessons in being truly on his own: ``He was beginning to see, as he hadn't in St. Paul, that things' prices weren't always evident at first glance.''
But Franzen reveals a compassion for his characters in spite of their bad behavior. Patty ``pities the younger Patty standing there in the Fen City Co-op and innocently believing that she'd reached bottom: that, one way or another, the crisis would be resolved in the next five days.'' Such long-term crises as these characters face won't be resolved for decades, if ever. Maybe the Berglunds deserve redemption; maybe they don't. Either way, there's hope for all of them, Franzen promises in this marvelous book, the best novel of 2011 so far. There's hope for them after all.